NJ Principal Tries To Hold Back The Tide, Will Fail

The social media backlash is in full effect. Unsurprisingly, the push to stem the social networking tide is beginning in schools, where teachers and administrators can witness the ill effects of online bullying firsthand. Needless to say, these efforts will fail utterly. The real question: is there a more effective way to deal with cyber-bullying? Can it be dealt with, at all?

This week brings the case of Anthony Orsini, the principal of Benjamin Franklin middle school in Ridgewood, N.J., who sent all the parents of students at his school a strongly-worded email encouraging them to forbid their children from joining social networks like Facebook, MySpace, or Formspring (a site whose sadomasochistic appeal seems to be built on allowing members to dish anonymous abuse to each other).

Orsini was strident in his call, asserting "There is absolutely, positively no reason for any middle school student to be a part of a social networking site! They are simply not psychologically ready for the damage that one mean person online can cause, and I don't want any of our students to go through the unnecessary pain that too many of them have already experienced." He went on: "Please do the following. Sit down with your child (and they are children still) and tell them that they are not allowed to be a member of any social networking site. Today!"


This response is well-meaning but draconian ... and doomed to fail. Like John Lithgow's preacher in "Footloose" telling the kids they can't dance or listen to rock music. But before addressing the impossibility of this vision, I'd like to note that it is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Social networks and related phenomena like massively multiplayer online role-playing games have obvious drawbacks -- but they also allow kids to strike up friendships with peers, whom they've never met in person, all around the world. Do you really want to deprive kids of this amazing and unprecedented existential opening, and all it might entail?

But anyway it doesn't matter because it's bound to fail. Here's why. While Orsini is probably right in saying that middle school students are still children, the students are bound to disagree. They will certainly take issue with his statement that they have no reason to be on social networking sites; they have the same reason to be there as adults -- to socialize.

And that's it, that's the whole game right there. Basically, this is shaping up to be just another in a long line of quixotic parental crusades, each of which failed before they even began -- against masturbation, jazz, rock-n-roll, miniskirts and bikinis, premarital sex, drugs, Internet porn and gambling ... now social networking. Sorry: not a chance. The fact is, when parents attempt to halt a popular pastime through coercive means, they simply transform it into a rallying cry for the next round of intergenerational struggle pitting youth against adults (well, except for "masturbation!" maybe).

Ironically Orsini almost seems to acknowledge the impossibility of his vision in his email. In one part he recalls that "5 of the last 8 parents who we have informed that their child was posting inappropriate things on Facebook said their child did not have an account. Every single one of the students had an account. 3 Students yesterday told a guidance counselor that their parents told them to close their accounts when the parents learned they had an account. All three students told their parents it was closed. All three students still had an account after telling their parents it was closed." In short: if you tell your kids to do this, they will probably lie to you and continue doing it anyway.

Of course, parents will view this as an affront to their authority, and seek to employ other resources in their ill-starred attempts to squash social networking. But like anyone fighting a guerrilla war, they will be overwhelmed by the sheer effort involved in policing a hostile native population.

For example, Orsini advises "Let them know that you will be installing Parental Control Software so you can tell every place they have visited online, and everything they have instant messaged or written to a friend." Really? Should they also let them know this is an idle threat? And even if they can spend a few hours every day playing Facebook FBI, what if their kids start using code? It wouldn't be the first time -- remember decoder rings in boxes of cereal? -- and anyway the dialect of text abbreviations probably baffles many adults, no encryption necessary.

Many parents will (rightly) balk at even stricter measures. For example, Orsini also advises "Over 90% of all homework does not require the internet, or even a computer. Do not allow them to have a computer in their room, there is no need." I would guess most conscientious parents are aware that computers and the Internet -- while potentially dangerous -- are also tremendously empowering tools for doing good stuff. Like books and cars, they may take children unexpected places, but that's part of their power. And what's to prevent them from using their friends' computers of mobile devices?

I don't claim to have an answer to online bullying. But I do feel it's a mistake to confuse a morally neutral medium -- an inanimate technology -- with well-established human behaviors that are as timeless as they are ugly.

4 comments about "NJ Principal Tries To Hold Back The Tide, Will Fail".
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  1. Amy Fanter from Odds On Promotions, April 30, 2010 at 3:10 p.m.

    My daughter's school has had these kinds of policies in place for the past two years. And guess what? It hasnt been an epic fail! Then again, it's a private school where parents and kids are held accountable. The secret to enforcement? Getting computers out of bedrooms and into family rooms. Of course that means parents actually having to parent; something that seems to be in precious little supply these days. As for your comparison to Footloose - I dont buy it. Child predators, porn weren't a mouse click away - and cyber-bullying had yet to be invented.

  2. Carol Tomalty from CarricDesign, April 30, 2010 at 3:28 p.m.

    My kids (2 teen boys) have been on FB and other social sites, but I am in their 'friend' networks and see what goes on. The one thing that I did insist on was that my son could not join FB until he was 13, which is what FB requires (even though many of his younger friends already had profiles). Many kids join and obviously create a fictious birthdate in order to get around the sign-up screen. IMO that is not okay.

  3. Thom Kennon from Free Radicals, April 30, 2010 at 3:50 p.m.

    Yeah! and you know what else?! ... we should start rating movies so they can't watch grown up stuff and setting age limits on alcohol and tobacco to keep them safe and sound and wash their mouths out with soap when they talk naughty!

    I have 5 kids - 9 thru 20. The 20 year old was raised on computers with games and internet with StrongBad and TV with Simpsons and the other 4 have been nurtured to varying degrees on Webkins and Club Penguin and now YouTube and MySpace and --- omg! - even the clean well lighted, yet now somehow evil, Facebook.

    You know what? Any of the troubles or problems or challenges or issues they have are all about what it's like to grow and mature thru pubescence into early adulthood.

    Saying they aren't mature enough to be using - with thoughtful parental oversight and guidance - computers and the interwebs and social networks is about a productive and realistic as saying they should speak only when spoken to and save their virginity for their married love of their life.

    Check the clock peeps - it's a new millennia and these are the new millennials and us acting like the old Ozzies and Harriets is NOT a smart child-rearing strategy.

    Lead by example, trust but verify. Check their search logs and browsing history once in awhile, but don't take the freakin keys away. We're gonna need every well-trained native we can get to lead the next generation of post digital marketers!

    Thom Kennon | @tkennon | |

  4. Jerry Foster from Energraphics, May 5, 2010 at 2:34 a.m.

    So was someone here just implying that the Nanny State make it impossible to join a social network without proving one's identity? Do you have any idea...I mean any idea that this is not just the first step to tyranny but the LAST step?

    The National Socialists in Germany rose to power telling parents to beware of child predators (Jewish men back then but any male stranger will do now).

    If you want do raise your *daughters* to be clueless at age 18, when they should be able to socialize with anyone they want to, that is fine. At 18, they can get men to ask them out by just looking good (anyone who thinks that 18 year old women need to try even 0.001% as hard to get a date as an 18 year old male is insane).

    But for Heaven's sake, do NOT allow a male teen to be clueless when he is thrust out on the college scene at age 18 and cannot get a date because of his being clueless. I consider it child abuse to raise a male teen without the knowledge of how the world really works as opposed to what a politically correct society tells them.

    You have to teach young males something called "game" in order for them to even have a chance at a social life post 18.

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